The sharp rebuke from the Justice Department’s inspector general over the FBI’s mishandling of the sex abuse investigation of former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar is the latest in a recent string of embarrassing failures and could have broader repercussions for the bureau.
Lawmakers who previously examined the FBI’s bungling of the Nassar investigation reacted to the 119-page report from the DOJ’s IG by calling for a public hearing with Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Christopher Wray to press them on what the Justice Department and FBI are doing to ensure victims of sex abuse aren’t ignored again.
The Nassar report follows years of turmoil at the FBI over missteps in the investigation of ties between former President Donald Trump‘s presidential campaign and Russia, including falsifying information in a surveillance warrant targeting a Trump campaign aide and the ouster of former FBI officials whose personal anti-Trump text messages undermined the legitimacy of the Russia investigation. For the Justice Department, the report raises questions about how the department oversees sex abuse investigations, after an internal review found poor judgment by prosecutors allowed Jeffrey Epstein to evade federal child trafficking charges.
In recent years, Republicans and the former President have taken aim at the FBI over claims that it was biased against him. But the findings from the Nassar report mean that even with a change of administrations, the FBI won’t easily turn the page from a pattern suggesting broader cultural problems at America’s premier law enforcement agency.
In the Nassar case, critics have questioned why the Justice Department declined to prosecute two FBI agents whose repeated violations of FBI policies and apparent attempted coverup is documented in the inspector general report released Wednesday.
John Manly, an attorney for more than 150 of the women and girls Nassar sexually abused, said: “When an ordinary American citizen lies to the FBI in the course of an investigation, they are prosecuted, yet no charges have been filed against anyone as a result of this five-year investigation.”
The Justice Department hasn’t commented on criticism of the lack of charges.
From July 2015, when USA Gymnastics officials first notified the FBI about abuse allegations against Nassar, and September 2016, when the FBI finally began to take meaningful investigative steps, at least 70 athletes were abused by Nassar, the inspector general reported.
“How many athletes would have been spared unimaginable pain if the FBI had done its job? The Department of Justice now needs to decide if it is going to be yet another institution that fails survivors or if it is going to enforce some measure of accountability for these crimes,” said a joint statement from Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Jerry Moran of Kansas, the top Democrat and Republican on a Senate panel that investigated abuse in the US Olympics teams.
Nassar, 57, is serving a 40-to-174-year state prison sentence after 156 women and girls said he sexually abused them over the course of 20 years.
The former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor pleaded guilty in November 2017 to seven counts of criminal sexual conduct for using his profession as a cover to sexually abuse his patients. Nassar also pleaded guilty to federal child pornography charges and separate state criminal sexual conduct charges.
The FBI acknowledged the gross failures in the report, saying, “This should not have happened. The FBI will never lose sight of the harm that Nassar’s abuse caused. The actions and inactions of certain FBI employees described in the Report are inexcusable and a discredit to this organization.”
The former supervisory agent who ran the Indianapolis FBI office that first received the USA Gymnastics report has retired, and a second agent in the office has been stripped of his ability to do any FBI duties, often a precursor to the bureau’s attempt to dismiss an employee. The FBI also said it has changed some of its policies for handling abuse investigations, including requirements for reviewing allegations that are in initial stages of investigation and new procedures for how to transfer cases between FBI offices. But the lack of charges against any of the people who mishandled the abuse reports has infuriated some lawmakers and some of the victims.
Target under Trump
Trump — faced with a Russia investigation that overshdowed his presidency — made the FBI a top target. And missteps at the agency helped propel his swipes at the Russia probe.
Another inspector general report, released in December 2019, showcased the FBI’s sloppy work in seeking a surveillance warrant on Carter Page, who briefly advised the Trump campaign in 2016. The FBI’s bungling of the warrant applications resulted in a criminal case against a former lawyer at the agency, Kevin Clinesmith, who pleaded guilty to altering an internal email that was used in the DOJ’s application process.
The 2019 inspector general report, meanwhile, said the FBI made “seven significant inaccuracies and omissions” in an application for the Page warrant. Not only did it repeat those errors when the application was renewed, the bureau also erred, the IG said, in its failure to reassess whether the warrant was still needed. According to the IG, the FBI investigators working on the applications withheld from their supervisors at the Justice Department the indications of the unreliability of the allegations in the application materials, which were presented to the agency by a British ex-spy working for the Democratic Party.
The Page debacle seriously damaged a legitimate investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russia ties, as did anti-Trump texts exchanged between two top FBI officials. The texts got one of those officials kicked off of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s team. The officials — Peter Strzok, then a top counter-intelligence agent and Lisa Page, an agency lawyer — were engaged in an extramarital romantic relationship at the time of the texts, a Justice inspector general investigation found, giving Trump and his allies deeply embarrassing fodder for their smearing of the FBI’s investigation.
Then, there was the 2018 ouster of former FBI deputy Director Andrew McCabe (now a contributor at CNN). Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to fire McCabe — allegedly for a lack of candor with the inspector general — further undercut the reputation of FBI independence, given how Trump targeted McCabe personally in his tirades against the agency.
Beyond just the Russia investigation, there was also internal scrutiny of the 2008 sweetheart deal the Justice Department signed off on for Epstein, the late financier who was being investigated for sex crimes involving minors. Trump’s Labor Secretary Alex Acosta was forced to step down amid the backlash to the 2008 non-prosecution agreement approved by Acosta, as US attorney, that allowed Epstein to avoid federal charges.
Readers of the Nassar inspector general report will see undeniable parallels with the Epstein controversy. In both cases, the federal law enforcement agency is under fire for not taking seriously enough sexual abuse allegations involving children.
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